Ed Wood (1994)

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Director: Tim Burton

Producers: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi (Fox, Touchstone)

Writers: Rudolph Grey (book), Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (screenplay)

Photography: Stefan Czapsky

Music: Howard Shore

Cast: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, G.D. Spradlin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bill Murray, Mike Starr, Max Casella, Brent Hinkley, Lisa Marie, George ‘The Animal’ Steele, Juliet Landau, Clive Rosengren

Introduction

What is Tim Burton’s definitive work? AMC Filmsite chose The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) for its Top 300. A former professor of mine swore by Big Fish (2003). And the Academy has only ever nominated Burton for two Oscars, for Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2013). Perhaps such varied opinions come from the fact that most folks aren’t sure exactly what to do with Mr. Burton. Is he a groundbreaking genius of cinematic language? Or is he just a guy with a great imagination and a keen eye for commercial success?

I contend the answer lies in what I like to call Ed Wood Scissorhands. The two films teamed Burton with consistent collaborators — producer Denise Di Novi, star Johnny Depp, casting director Victoria Thomas, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, art department guru Tom Duffield and costume designer Colleen Atwood — and both arrived after smash hit Batman films. It’s helpful to compare the two as inverses of each other, as Scissorhands was a commercial approach to a serious subject, while Ed Wood was a serious approach to a commercial subject: the business of Hollywood. At times, Burton has mastered both realms, and it seems historians are eagerly waiting to see which side wins out.

In 2008, Entertainment Weekly ranked Scissorhands the #15 Best Movie of the Last 25 Years, while Ed Wood placed down at #93. IMDB voters and Rotten Tomatoes critics have the two films neck-and-neck. But critic Peter Travers ranks Ed Wood as high as #36 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Most Maverick Movies, ahead of Annie Hall (1977), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (1967). Such high esteem no doubt mirrors the fact that Ed Wood is Burton’s most unique picture, his only black-and-white effort and a rare example where Danny Elfman does not provide the score (here it’s Howard Shore). Yet the film is still unequivocally Tim Burton. To paraphrase Ed Wood‘s title character, perhaps Scissorhands “may be the one he’ll be remembered for,” but Ed Wood is the one he should be remembered for, a fascinating movie about movies.

Plot Summary

The film celebrates the life of Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp), the cult director of ’50s sci-fi/horror camp, who two years after his death was declared the “worst director of all time.” From the very beginning, we see Wood as a dreamer whose failure is not a lack of passion, but rather an incapacity for artistry and an inherently misguided vision. His Hollywood dream seems dead, staging poorly-reviewed plays and striking out with even the crummiest B-picture studios when pitching his baby film project, a sex-change biopic. He realizes his window of opportunity is closing: “Orson Welles was only 26 when he made Citizen Kane. I’m already 30.”

Then, one day, his big break arrives. He runs into aging screen legend Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) of Dracula fame, who drives him over to his house for private film screenings in the old man’s living room. Their friendship doubles as a business venture: Lugosi will provide Wood the starpower needed to finance his picture, while Wood will allow Lugosi to feel alive again. Thus, Wood writes and directs Glen or Glenda (1953), a coming-out testimonial about his own secret obsession with wearing women’s clothing.

This strains his relationship with future Elvis songwriter Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), an aspiring actress whom he must throw under the bus for the sake of funding. Wood’s “rise” in the industry becomes a tale of one artistic compromise after another, casting those he does not want to cast and fighting intrusive producers who want to call the shots. In the end, he convinces a group of Baptist ministers to finance his culminating effort, the awesomely bad Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), billed as Lugosi’s final screen appearance.

The Cast

As if the complete opposite of Wood’s own experience, Burton hand-picks a brilliant cast to play the hodge-podge group of Hollywood losers. This includes a young Sarah Jessica Parker (post-Footloose, pre-Sex & The City) as the enraged lover of a transvestite; Patricia Arquette (post-True Romance, pre-Medium) as the girlfriend who loves Wood in spite of his cross-dressing; Bill Murray (post-Groundhog Day, pre-Royal Tenenbaums) as the gay costume designer named Bunny; Lisa Marie (pre-Mars Attacks!) as the bosomy Vampira; wrestler George “The Animal” Steele as the clumsy brute Tor Johnson; and Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller) as the spook-narrator Criswell.

Rising above them all is Martin Landau, the former star of TV’s Mission: Impossible (1966) and the first choice to play Mr. Spock on TV’s Star Trek (1966). Landau had twice been nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Tucker (1988) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) before finally winning for Ed Wood. When he accepted the award, Landau exclaimed, “My God! I feel like I’m having an out of body experience!” Perhaps he was, as he was so convincing as Lugosi that it seemed Dracula himself had risen from his coffin to inhabit an Oscar performance (with Oscar-winning makeup). Landau’s jealous rants about rival Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) steal the film with hilarious profanity and a tragic exploration of the price of lost fame.

While Landau got the gold, equal credit belongs to Depp, who unselfishly takes a role that was made to be overshadowed by his supporting cast. But what would Ed Wood be without Ed Wood? Depp creates a goofy grin beneath a pencil-thin Walt Disney mustache, mouthing the words as the cameras roll; wondrous eyes with a nodding head in the projection room; and those angora sweaters and blonde wigs over a manly frame. Depp’s is a powerhouse performance, showcasing his acting range after his more gimmicky roles with scissors. In a way, it mirrors Lugosi’s beef with Karloff, as Depp’s Scissorhands is a modern version of Karloff’s Frankenstein, while Depp’s Ed Wood is, as Lugosi says, “all in the eyes and the voice and the hands.”

Directing a Director

What fun it must have been for Burton to direct a film about a director, let alone history’s worst director. Imagine the joy in shooting tself-reflexive scenes with fictional sets on actual movie sets, eloquently shooting new footage of once terrible footage by the real-life Wood (that octopus scene is priceless!). If Wood is history’s worst director, Burton uses Ed Wood as a statement that he’s one of the best today, disproving Wood’s assertion that “filmmaking is not about the tiny details.” On the contrary, Burton gets all the details right, delivering perhaps his most effective directorial effort.

Like Scissorhands, Burton prefaces his story with the camera moving through the window of a house and a reminder of the “storytelling” to come. We also get another labyrinthine opening credits sequence, the camera weaving around a cemetery to reveal the credits written on various tombstones. He also once again employs the use of miniatures, this time creating the Hollywood hills and downtown L.A., echoing Wood’s own penchant for miniature flying saucers.

At one point, Burton recreates a newspaper jumpcut from Citizen Kane, the very same scene where Wood sits in front of a Citizen Kane poster, while a Dracula poster hangs to his right. Repeat viewers will enjoy such mise-en-scene, as Wood desperately wants to be like his idol, Orson Welles. Like Welles, Burton wisely uses depth of field, particularly at the Brown Derby, where Depp begs on hands and knees deep in the background like a tiny pathetic creature, but one framed neatly with a frame within a frame. Note also the noir-like handling of Lugosi’s suicidal moments, like venetian blinds across a bed, dutch angles in Lugosi’s home and a windshield reflection of Lugosi’s needle-scarred arm.

Above all, Burton’s biggest triumph is his ability to relay theme through image. Take for instance, Wood’s desire to translate his own cinephelia into his profession. Burton gives us two opposite images to accomplish this goal: (a) over-the-shoulder shots with Wood’s shoulder in the bottom right of the frame, looking on at his actors on set; and (b) compelling shots of him sitting in the dark, watching the flicker of light projecting his own work on the screen. Digging deeper, consider the visual storytelling of Wood’s gender-bending identity. Burton begins with a shot of Dolores’ hands flipping through Wood’s Glen or Glenda script, then tilts up to her face, where her expression reveals her realization of her boyfriend’s cross-dressing secret. Finally, in a great use of slow disclosure, she turns and opens the door to see Wood standing in women’s clothing.

The key here is not simply the fact that Wood finds comfort in women’s clothes, but rather his urge to tell this personal secret through his “art.” This is one of the main themes of Ed Wood, the relation between creative expression and real life. As Wood wants to share his personal secret with the world, Dolores wants to keep their personal lives a secret, saying, “This is our life! This is so embarrassing,” to which he responds, “Of course it is. That’s why you should play the part!”

Is there any better, or more bizarre, example of film as a director’s personal expression? Early in the film, a producer tells Wood, “I don’t hire directors with burning desires to tell their stories. … I need someone with experience, who can shoot a film in four days and make me a profit. Sorry, that’s all that matters.” But throughout the film, Burton insists this isn’t “all that matters,” suggesting the commercial imperative pales in comparison to the burning desire of artistic expression. Thus the great power of a scene where Wood stumbles across Orson Welles (Vincent d’Onofrio) in a bar. Hats off to screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski for crafting this wonderfully ironic moment between two filmmakers, at complete opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their talent level, but both relating with each other on the creativity-zapping aspect of the business they share.

Legacy

Burton understands, possibly better than any modern director, the struggle between artistic expression and commercial necessity. Like all directors, he is caught somewhere in the middle of two poles, not quite Welles, but far from Wood. Wood’s quote about Glen or Glenda sums up Burton: “It’s about how people have two personalities. The side they show to the world and then the secret person they hide inside.”

Which brings us back to our “lost child” discussion, where the “secret person hidden inside” Burton is his inner child. While Ed Wood’s plot doesn’t literally follow a child, its main character represents a child’s view of the moviemaking process, that glorious Super 8 phase of cranking out home movies with no developed talent, no fancy scripts, no filmmaking prowess, just a love for the sheer magic of movies.

After all, movies are a childhood fantasyland, and Ed Wood is a reminder that many directors, even successful ones, never quite escape that phase of childhood wonder. It’s no coincidence that Wood’s idol was Welles, the acclaimed “boy genius” who called called the camera “the ultimate paintbox.” So many filmmakers suffer from the Ed Wood Complex, aspiring to the “great director” esteem of Orson Welles without any idea of why he is so highly regarded. Thus the theme of this site, to explore the why, to discover what it is that defines greatness.

“Bad” filmmakers like Ed Wood have always existed and audiences have always existed for them. The American movie experience is littered with guilty pleasures which most of us can identify as trash, but which we love anyway. There’s nothing wrong with this, except for a dangerous slippery slope. With an over-indulgence on guilty pleasures and no ambition to aspire to more, do we erode our own tastes over time? The message of Ed Wood is to remind us of a question articulated by scholar David Thomason, “If we can no longer [identify] bad films, are we any more reliable with the good?”

 

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